Chinese New Year. The largest annual human migration in the world. An estimated 200 million people travel across China back to their home town or village, in time for the start of the festival. The country basically closes, much in the same way the UK does over Christmas.
Travelling to work last Friday morning felt like we were in a scene from 28 Days Later (A post apocalyptic zombie horror movie), I had never seen the roads so deserted, almost everybody had gone. If only it could be like that every day I thought… Sadly, soon it will be back to reality when all the ‘migrant workers’ return to Nanjing over the next few days.
Anyway, it being Chinese New Year meant we had a week off. Our friends, colleagues, every internet travel website we read, told us that travel in China during Chinese New Year would be a kind of travel purgatory. Just don’t even bother, most of them said. A lot of expats escape to warmer climes (e.g Thailand, Philippines), but a lot have also stayed at home for various different reasons. Most were not keen on internal travel in China.
For Amelia and I, we have only been in China for six months. Apart from Nanjing, we have only been to Beijing and Shanghai. Interesting places they may be, but we want to see the REAL China – the rural bits, the places that few westerners get to see. With China being a massive country and all that, and only a week off during the middle of winter, and us refusing to take the risk of travelling too far for fear of getting stranded during the travel chaos, there wasn’t exactly an abundance of options, shall we say. In the end, we settled on a trip to our neighbouring province, Anhui. Our destination to be Huangshan Mountain, arguably the most famous mountain in China (apparently), and some pretty looking little UNESCO World Heritage Listed Huizhou Villages nearby that we had found out about on the internet.
We arrived in Huangshan around 5am on New Years Day. The constant boom of fireworks was relentless, even as dawn was breaking. I thanked my lucky stars we had been on a sleeper train all night, for we would have had quite a battle to actually sleep had we stayed in our Nanjing apartment. Fireworks on Chinese New Year in China make our Guy Fawkes Night celebrations look tame. There are no concerns about noise pollution, even less so health and safety – with fireworks being let off, pretty much everywhere, by everyone. It’s spectacular to say the least, although it gets a little tiring after a while, as everybody it seems has bought the same box of fireworks.
Anyway, back to our trip to Anhui. We arrived to the foot of Huangshan Mountain shortly before 8am. There are three main ways up to the top of Huangshan, first of all, and by far the most popular – is the cable car. Most Chinese take the cable car; for us, as young, relatively fit, and healthy youngsters taking a cable car up a mountain is cheating, and inexcusable unless you are stretched for time, disabled, or morbidly obese (in which case the exercise would probably be of benefit). For us at least, hiking to the top of a mountain is significantly more rewarding and satisfying, and a lot more fun. You can hike up from the East or West Gate. The East Gate is the most popular trail to start walking from, as it offers the quickest way up on foot. The West Gate route, we had read, was significantly more picturesque but also longer than that from the East. As we were starting early, and the weather forecast was clear and sunny for the first day, but cloud and drizzle for the second, we decided to plan on doing the lion’s share of hiking on the first day – as being stuck on a mountain on a cloudy, rainy day doesn’t usually make for a great day out.
The weather was bitterly cold, for the area had been hit by a cold snap and snow in recent days. We had come prepared fortunately, and the wintery conditions were to prove a marvellous blessing. The scenery on our ascent won’t be forgotten in a hurry – tall dramatic granite rock-faces towered over dense snow-blanketed forest, as frozen streams cut their way through the valley. We looked out across a landscape of mountainous peaks sneaking out from a mysterious, eerie mist which had descended around them. What a glorious start to the day.
What’s more, we didn’t see another soul for the first two-three hours, and were able to enjoy this picturesque winter setting, in total tranquillity. The Chinese Tour Groups which would inevitably be waiting for us along the summit trails, would not be ruining this moment or place for us.
As we continued our ascent, the views became more spectacular. To my delight, there were not hordes of Chinese Tour Groups walking along the summit trails, we certainly weren’t alone, but it was extremely civilised and pleasant.
After lunch, a wild monkey (yes, wild – I didn’t know they still had wild animals in Eastern China either!) came and said hello to us. He climbed down, literally inches away from us – larger than most monkey’s I’ve seen, and was quite happy to pose for a photograph!
Our legs started to tire as morning gave way to afternoon, and snow gave way to ice under the glare of the midday sun. We plodded on, making slow progress as the stairwells snaked up, down and through the mountain. The views were spellbinding, and built up to a glorious finale for us at “Flying Rock ”. James Cameron (The movie director) said that Huangshan was the inspiration for the spectacular mountain scenery in his mega-blockbuster Avatar, now we can see why.
The less said about our over-priced, over-rated, unfriendly and unwelcoming hotel we stayed in (Paiyunlou Hotel), the better. We thought about getting up for the sunrise before we went to bed, but we thought “nehhh” and slept for twelve and a half hours instead. It was an epic sleep to round off an epic day.
We woke up feeling fresh as daisies, enjoying noodles and steamed buns for breakfast before starting our descent. The weather forecast was correct, it was certainly gloomy. We found ourselves close to the cable car terminus, there were a lot of people here, and tour groups. “AHHHHHHHH, let’s get out of here”, so we did – fleeing from the tour groups and tourist traps as fast as we could. We walked past supposedly “the most beautiful view in Huangshan National Park” according the sign, but couldn’t see anything except for cloud.
We descended via the East steps, which was rather brutal on our knees and thighs, but a good workout for our muscles nonetheless. Three hours later, we were down – and heading to Tunxi (Huangshan City) via KFC.
For the benefit of other travellers – We played a blinder by ascending the Western steps on the first day, and descending via the East steps. To any prospective travellers out there, they are much nicer than the Eastern steps, significantly quieter, and you don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to walk up them. Plan according to the weather forecast, but if it’s going to be clear on one day – make sure you see the Western steps. If you plan well and get lucky with the weather (like we did) – it’s a magnificent place.